There are plenty of free image-editing tools: Windows Live Photo Gallery, Paint.NET, iPhoto for Mac, and the list goes on. There are also specific photo-handling and management packages like Apple’s Aperture and Lightroom (also from Adobe). Commercial packages like Paint Shop Pro and Xara Xtreme are packed with features. Still, Adobe Photoshop manages to keep its $600-odd price tag year after year. Creative Suite 5 (CS5), Adobe’s pricey pack of multimedia software that will be out this summer, is no exception. We got an invite to review the beta version and checked it out to see what you get in Photoshop CS5 and why the features keep the product so expensive.
Everything is going 3D this year, including Photoshop CS5. The new 3D features are only in the extended version, but they let you turn 2D objects and text into 3D models, apply textures and materials to them, control the lighting, and render them with Adobe’s Ray Tracer. Both versions have the new tools for working with raw images and high dynamic range (HDR), painting into images, selecting awkward areas, removing unwanted areas as if they’d never been there (it really is that good), and moving people in your images around like puppets. They also use your graphics processor to accelerate not just 3D effects but the task of picking colors, previewing crops, and resizing brushes, which are things that used to take just enough time to get frustrating.
Adobe touts 30 "new" features in Photoshop CS5, although there are some we definitely count as improvements. They are less about the big-name features that justify the cost and more about dealing with minor irritations that are so frustrating you begrudge the cost of software no matter how powerful it is. Some defaults are now more sensible, while other changes improve the way you work with common tools. You can now delete all the empty layers in an image at once or close all the images you have open without saving, adjust the fill or opacity of multiple layers at once, drag a file into an open PSD to add it as a layer, and use Save As to have Photoshop suggest the folder in which you saved images last so you spend less time navigating folders. Being able to swap quickly between different sets of panels is handy, too.
Two of the smaller features introduced by popular demand are particularly useful (although again they’re the kind of thing that made you glad you bought Photoshop rather than justifying the price). If your image is at an angle, you can straighten it with the Ruler tool by just dragging along a line that’s supposed to be horizontal and click Straighten. This works very well and it’s much easier than juggling a slider until an image looks straight (as in Photo Gallery).
When you’re cropping an image, you can now see a grid over the selection or a three-by-three grid that lets you use the "rule of thirds" to compose the image. Placing the interesting elements in your image at the intersections or along the lines of the three-by-three grid where the viewer’s eye naturally falls is one of the easiest ways to perk up an image, and while you can do it by eye, it’s convenient to have the lines.